Theocracy Causes Famine

Recently, I got an e-mail from the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is working with USAID to raise awareness of the continuing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The toll in lives is already appalling, including over 29,000 deaths from starvation and outbreaks of measles and cholera, and hundreds more dying every day. The crisis has produced almost a million refugees, including over 400,000 at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.

I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that occasional famine is a painful fact of life, especially in poor, overpopulated regions of arid, sub-Saharan nations, and that any effort to help, however well-intentioned, is only going to delay the inevitable. I won't deny that I've had some of these thoughts myself. But I was brought up short by a passage that Johann Hari wrote in a recent book review:

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an "act of God" - a "biblical" failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobel­winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly - because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy. For example, during the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed itself, but the imperial British rulers of the time demanded that the majority of it be shipped abroad for export. The only space left for the Irish to grow their own food was on small and marginal plots, and when the potato blight wiped out their chief crop, disaster followed.

And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought - aggravated, no doubt, by climate change - but that alone wouldn't have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems. But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that's the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:

The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.

The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They've blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They've even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.

So, yes, famine is an "act of God" - but only in the sense that it's caused by God's self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don't value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.

Whenever I think of Somalia, I'm reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

If you want to help, see the FBB's Humanist Crisis Response Program, supporting the International Rescue Committee.

September 26, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments

The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

Although many sects of Christianity consider their own beliefs to be infallible, Catholicism has a formal, bureaucratic process for adding new inerrant teachings to its canon. When the pope speaks "ex cathedra", officially defining a new dogma, it's becomes something that all Catholics are required to profess. (I like to think he has a special "infallible hat" hanging in his wardrobe.) As the church thoughtfully explains, an ex cathedra statement must be true "independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result".

Now, admittedly, it's true that the pope doesn't claim to be infallible about everything he says. (I know, what a humble guy, right?) Although he can theoretically decide to issue an ex cathedra proclamation about anything at any time, it's true that the claim of papal infallibility has only been formally invoked on rare occasions. The last time it was used was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven was an article of dogmatic belief for Catholics.

However, what's less well known is that an official proclamation from the Pope isn't the only way for the Catholic church to issue an infallible teaching. If all bishops throughout the world at any given time agree on a particular belief, then that belief is considered to automatically be infallibly true and dogmatically binding on all Catholics present and future. The church calls this the "ordinary and universal magisterium". Pope John Paul II, for example, explicitly stated that the prohibition on women priests is a permanent and infallible part of Catholic faith because of this doctrine.

The ordinary and universal magisterium is probably also why Pope Paul VI overruled his own handpicked commission when they recommended that the church permit contraception: because even though the pope has never made an ex cathedra statement about birth control, the unanimous agreement of bishops up till that point made it an infallible matter of morals, and therefore, according to the church, impossible for them to ever change their position.

Now, I've got a question: Under the doctrine of the ordinary and universal magisterium, is it an infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic church that priests who rape children should be sheltered and protected from the law?

If I understand the principle, the dissent of even one bishop would render this null and void as a church doctrine. But, as far as I'm aware, this has never happened. As far as I'm aware, no Catholic bishop anywhere has ever informed the police voluntarily when a priest was accused of molestation, as opposed to turning over said priest because his proclivities were already known or as part of a legal settlement in which that disclosure was compelled.

It seems absurd that the Catholic hierarchy should hold as an infallible truth of faith that the church should protect pedophiles. And yet, the church's officials have consistently acted as if this is the case. They've consistently acted as if avoiding the embarrassment of a sex predator being discovered among the clergy is more important than preventing that person from preying upon children in his pastoral care. Whether they've explicitly said so or not, they certainly seem to think that shielding child molesters from the law is an essential part of Catholic morals.

September 16, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

More Filth-Based Initiatives

One of my earliest posts on Daylight Atheism was about the torrent of angry, obscene, hateful messages that inevitably greets any atheist who speaks out in public. We're seeing this happen again, this time aimed at Blair Scott of American Atheists, who recently appeared on Fox News to discuss that group's lawsuit against a cross in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. (Appearing on Fox is a surefire way to bring the angry lunatics out from under their rocks.) Here's a sample:

"i say kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is God" —Paul Altum

"Shoot them. Shoot to kill." —Bob O'Connell

"Nail them to that cross then display it" —Mike Holeschek

"these people are f'ing scum of the earth. can we start killing them now?" —Michael Perri [Editor's Note: He can gleefully fantasize about committing mass murder, but he won't type the word "fucking"?]

"I love Jesus, and the cross and if you dont, I hope someone rapes you!" —Sindy Clock

Note, I didn't redact the names. These were Facebook comments, and if anyone is stupid enough to post this kind of filth under their real name, they deserve what they get. As far as I'm concerned, when you start making threats, you forfeit your right to anonymity. You can see these comments and more preserved for posterity, here and here, as well as a third page that preserved a different sampling, although it unfortunately redacted the names of the guilty. (I do have to give credit to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who actually discussed the lawsuit without demagoguing, a rarity among politicians.)

These violent, deranged messages put the lie to the claim that religion is a superior source of morality compared to atheism, much less that it's the only valid source of morality. What it really is, is a tribal marker - a convenient way of identifying those who belong versus those who are outsiders. And while believers can be very compassionate and generous toward fellow members of the tribe, they're equally swift to turn aggressive and violent when someone trespasses on one of the tribe's taboos.

Ths isn't even a new phenomenon. In the 1870s, the famous biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection, agreed to answer the challenge of a flat-earther who bet £500 - good money even today and an enormous sum back then - that no one could prove the Earth's surface was curved. The wager involved hanging markers from two bridges along a canal, each at the same distance above the water, and then sighting through a telescope to prove that one was higher than the other due to the planet's curvature. The judge declared that Wallace had won the bet, but his victory brought on a flood of death threats and bile from infuriated flat-earthers. As Steve Jones writes:

A hint of their response comes from a letter to his wife: "Madam – If your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason."

Although Wallace's hate mail was slightly more literate than the drooling maniacs on Facebook, the striking similarity shows that it doesn't matter what the taboo is, whether it's the flat Earth or crosses in a 9/11 museum. It only matters that a religious faction holds it to be sacred. Announce yourself in opposition to it, and you can be sure you'll attract the hate of the mob. The bright side of this ugliness is that, unlike in ages past, there's a secular community that can point it out and publicize it, which aids our cause by helping to sever the perceived link between religion and morality.

August 5, 2011, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink41 comments

Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping, Continued

I never thought I'd say this, but I think the Catholic church is actually relieved to be dealing with a scandal that, for once, doesn't involve priests raping children with the protection of their higher-ups. How else to explain their abject contrition over the discovery that, in Australia, they abducted tens of thousands of children born to unwed mothers in Catholic hospitals and gave them up for adoption without consent?

Australia's Roman Catholic Church has issued an apology for its role in the forced adoptions of babies from unmarried mothers during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a practise that has been described as a "national disgrace".

It is estimated that more than 150,000 young women across Australia had their children taken away at birth without their consent, often never to be seen again.

Women subjected to forced adoptions in Catholic-run hospitals have described being shackled and drugged during labour and prevented from seeing their children being born or holding them afterwards.

..."We acknowledge the pain of separation and loss felt then and felt now by the mothers, fathers, children, families and others involved in the practices of the time," the apology said.

"For this pain we are genuinely sorry."

Like the Magdalene laundries of Ireland, this horror had its roots in Christianity's wicked theology of original sin and human depravity. Doubtless, young unwed mothers were assumed to be sinful, immoral, the "wrong" kind of people; and of course, in the church's eyes, that meant they had no human rights and could be treated like slaves.

What's remarkable is that this practice continued even after society as a whole had become more enlightened. The article mentions that, by this time, Australia offered state-paid benefits to single parents in recognition of the fact that there's more than one kind of family. But even after the country as a whole had recognized that these less-conventional family relationships deserved protection and support, the Catholic church continued to act like a medieval dictatorship, treating women and children as if it was entitled to decide their fates with or without their consent, and splitting up mothers from their babies in the interests of forcing them into the "right" kind of family.

Now that the truth has come to light, the church's tattered moral standing has taken another blow. I said earlier that they were contrite, but maybe I spoke too soon. After all, they're still displaying their usual sense of entitled superiority, acting as if others should bear the burden of compensating the victims of the wrongs they committed:

As well as issuing an apology, the Catholic Church has called on the government [emphasis added] to establish "a fund for remedying established wrongs" and a national programme to help mothers and children who were harmed by the forced separations.

Notably absent from the church's apology is any offer to help identify the people who organized and participated in this act of mass child kidnapping so that they can be prosecuted. Given the time involved, many of them are probably dead by now, but it's an avenue that should at least be pursued. As with the child rape scandal, it appears that the Catholic authorities are willing to make a symbolic show of apology only as long as no actual punishment follows for any of their wrongdoing.

* * *

In other news, there's this cheering story wondering whether the Vatican's relations with Ireland have been permanently damaged. In the wake of the Cloyne report, public anger against the church is at a high-water mark, with some going so far as to hope that the church will follow the News of the World's example and shut down permanently. And the Pope isn't helping, with a stiffnecked response that can best be summarized as "How dare you peasants act so ungrateful after all we've done for you".

Even when the facts of the situation would seem to dictate sackcloth and ashes, the church continues to take the path of defiance, acting as if it's not subject to the laws of the nations in which it resides. Granted, opinions change so slowly inside the Vatican, they may not have realized that this is in fact no longer the case. But, I have to say, I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Irish government and people jolt them into the present!

July 29, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

Ireland Versus the Vatican, Continued

I've mentioned in the past that Ireland, which gave the Catholic church more privileges and greater deference than almost any other country in Europe, was rewarded for its devotion with one of the highest per-capita rates of child rape by priests than any other nation else in the world. That scandal continues to unspool, and today there's another big update.

In 1996, in response to public outcry, a committee of Irish bishops drew up a policy which would have made it mandatory to report suspected sex predators among the clergy to the police. As I wrote back in January, the Vatican expressed strong reservations about this policy, warning that full disclosure of accusations to the civil authorities could interfere with internal church investigations (which, of course, it considered more important).

As a result, the mandatory-reporting policy, although it technically remained in force, was shelved by the bishops and never enforced. What happened next is no surprise: predator priests continued to abuse children, and the church continued to do nothing. As recently as 2009, parishioners were lodging complaints of abuse and molestation by members of the clergy. An independent investigative committee has just released its most recent report, which only covered the rural diocese of Cloyne; but even so, it turned up allegations against 19 priests since 1996.

"That's the most horrifying aspect of this document," Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland's minister for children, told a news conference on Wednesday. "This is not a catalogue of failure from a different era - this is about Ireland now."

The Irish government is furious, as well they might be, but as usual, the Catholic church has shown little sign of concern. Bishop John Magee, who resigned last year but was in charge of the diocese during the period covered by the Cloyne report, offered more empty apologies but nothing else. In response, Ireland's prime minister Enda Kenny summoned the Vatican's ambassador for a harsh dressing down. As Ophelia Benson put it so aptly, reading these words was like music to my ears:

"There's one law in this country. Everybody is going to have to learn to comply with it. The Vatican will have to comply with the laws of this country," Gilmore said after his face-to-face grilling of the ambassador, a rare experience for the pope's diplomats anywhere, let alone long-deferential Ireland. (source)

This is great stuff. Even better was the announcement that the government plans to introduce a law which would make it a crime for anyone, church officials included, to fail to report allegations of sex abuse to the civil authorities:

"The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar," Kenny said.

These are good first steps, but Ireland needs to go further. When the abuse scandal first broke, the government made a disastrous decision to protect the church by assuming almost all the liability for settlements to abuse victims. I hope they're giving serious consideration to reversing that decision by seizing and auctioning church property to pay compensation to the victims. (And if it hasn't occurred to them yet, I hope some freethinking Irish voters will suggest it.) I also hope that Irish officials will consider following the lead of the Philadelphia grand jury that recently returned indictments against church officials for protecting child molesters. There ought to be more than enough evidence already to file charges.

These are harsh measures, but the bishops have proven again and again that nothing less will suffice. They've shown countless times that they'll never act against child molesters on their own initiative. Their only loyalty is to the institution of the church, not to the people who attend it, and whenever anything happens that could embarrass the church, their first response will always, always be to deny, delay and cover up. They'll never take action unless they're forced to by the threat of criminal sanctions - arrests and prosecutions of bishops, seizure of church property to pay compensation to victims, and the like. The Catholic authorities are in need of a sharp reminder that they're subject to the law like everyone else, and I hope Ireland gives it to them.

July 20, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments

The Harm Psychics Do, Continued

You know, I was going to write about the Pastafarian who won the right to wear a metal colander on his head for his driver's license photo - but by the time I got home from work yesterday, half a dozen other atheist bloggers had already posted about it, so never mind. Here's something a little heavier instead.

I wrote a post in 2008, The Harm Psychics Do, about a self-proclaimed psychic who announced on the basis of no evidence that a local woman's autistic daughter was being molested. Thankfully, that claim was conclusively disproved by evidence and went no further. But not all flirtations with woo have such a satisfying ending. Sometimes, people trust the reassuring lies of psychics and pay dearly for it, as this jaw-droppingly horrifying story shows:

Mr Day, 60, revealed he had already planned his suicide as he spoke with Mrs Stack in a session that was recorded on a CD.

She told him: "I would understand why you would do that." She later said: "Well you go with my blessing then" - adding: "If you do die, come back and have a cup of tea and a chat with me."

When a despairing client announced that he was contemplating suicide, this loathsome psychic pretender told him to go ahead and do it - and then encouraged him to come back afterward and have a chat with him from the afterlife. And a few days later, sure enough, he went home and fatally shot himself. He called the police just before he did it, and when they called back, they got a voice-mail message saying, "If you want to contact me, you'll have to get in touch with a clairvoyant."

As I've written before, the religious teachings about an afterlife distort morality by making this life seem less real or less important by comparison. This fraud was no doubt just following her usual line of patter when she told her client that death isn't the end of consciousness, but a mere transition into another world from which he could return at will. And while that wasn't the whole cause of his suicide, it certainly was a contributing factor, as his last voice-mail message shows.

The defense she offered at the inquest was that she was only an "entertainer" - i.e., someone not qualified to help with people's serious personal problems, which begs the question of why she was passing herself off as one. And then there's this:

The ex-Samaritan said her training meant she could not break the confidence of anyone, even if they planned to die.

Even if "psychics" are under the same legal restrictions on disclosure as psychiatrists or real counselors, which I doubt (and, in the U.S. at least, even a doctor can report a client to the police if they believe he's in imminent danger) - there's a cryingly obvious point: She didn't have to encourage him to kill himself! Was she really so malicious to say this to a suicidal stranger, and if so, why? Or, worse, does she genuinely believe that death isn't harmful, in which case she might well give this advice to more people in the future? ("Lost your job? Getting a divorce? Go ahead and kill yourself! Things will be much better on the other side.")

By definition, most of the people who seek psychics' help are either gullible, desperate, or both. This makes the potential harm of bad advice much worse, and this story is a tragic example. Charlatans enriching themselves by telling people soothing lies is bad enough, but causing death and chaos in the real world is far worse. The lesson we should learn is that, whether it's traditional orthodox hate and hellfire or New Age fashionable nonsense, there's no such thing as harmless woo, which makes it imperative to defend reason and expose these con artists for what they are.

July 14, 2011, 10:05 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments

Photo Sunday: Seville

To see the pictures, click the link to continue:


July 10, 2011, 2:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments

Book Review: Losing My Religion

Summary: A hard-hitting and emotionally moving story of a religion reporter's deconversion, despite a few lingering blind spots.

Losing My Religion is the autobiography of William Lobdell, the religion reporter turned atheist whom I wrote about in 2007. I briefly mentioned the outline of his story in my previous post, but this book is a much more in-depth account of how he found, and then ultimately lost, his faith. Despite some significant weaknesses, which I'll get to, it's a powerful, honest story and definitely worth the time to read.

When Lobdell opens the story, his life was at a low point. By age 28, he was divorced and remarried, his career at a local magazine had stalled, he was in bad health and drinking too much, and he and his new wife were having a son whom he felt completely unprepared to parent. When he confessed his troubles to a colleague who told him, "You need God," he was willing to try anything that promised to change his situation for the better. (He wryly confesses that if his colleague had said, "You need crack cocaine," he'd probably have tried that too [p.4]).

He joined a nondenominational church, Mariners, near his home in Newport Beach. At first uncertain, he slowly warmed to its message of "unconditional love", which he "eagerly lapped up" [p.12]. But more important was his friendship with the right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, who persuaded him to attend an evangelical men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. Lobdell initially resisted, mortified by the thought of sharing teary confessionals with complete strangers, but the exhausting schedule of singing, preaching, work and testimonials gradually wore down his defenses (as, he rightly notes, it's designed to do), and the weekend ended with him unexpectedly having a born-again experience:

When I repeated the line "I invite Jesus into my heart," I experienced what I can only call a vision. Time slowed. In my mind's eye, my heart opened into halves, and a warm, glowing light flowed right in... I felt instantly the light was Jesus, who now lived inside me. A tingling warmth spread across my chest. This, I thought - no, I knew - was what it meant to be born-again. [p.22]

With his conversion and newfound sense of purpose in life, both his career and his marriage improved. When he landed a coveted job on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times, he took this as a sign that God was guiding him, and believed that he'd found his calling: using his journalistic talents to tell stories of how God worked in the lives of the faithful, the kind of story he felt was routinely overlooked in the media.

Lobdell's career was thriving, but he was growing disenchanted with the simplistic theology of Mariners. His wife had been raised Roman Catholic and wanted to rejoin the church, and he found himself drawn to Catholicism's long history and complex liturgy. But fate intervened dramatically: just as he was on the verge of converting, the Catholic child-rape scandal began to break in a big way. Lobdell himself reported on one of the earliest cases, Monsignor Michael Harris, who was so photogenic and beloved in his community that he was referred to as "Father Hollywood" - until the diocese reached an embarrassingly public settlement with a young man who claimed that Harris had molested him. At first, Lobdell dismissed it as an isolated case, but as more and more similar cases broke nationwide, and as he attended survivors' meetings and witnessed for himself how the church treated abuse victims, his mind was changed:

I discovered that as horrific as the abuse was, most survivors experienced the most lasting damage from church leaders whom they approached for help. Instead of receiving protection and justice, these children and their parents were vilified for coming forward, called liars or accused of being bad Catholics for trying to bring scandal upon the church. The victims and their families were routinely told that they were the first to complain about a priest's behavior, though it often wasn't true. [p.102]

At the very last minute, Lobdell decided not to convert to Catholicism after all. Doubt was whispering at the edges of his mind, but he tried to suppress it. Disillusioned by Catholicism, but still a theist, he decided he had a new mission: he would "rebuild the church", finding and exposing the hypocrites who claimed to speak in God's name, and cleanse the institution of Christianity of these evils so that it would emerge stronger.

Now that he was looking for it, he found that Christianity was rife with corruption - faith-healing con men, powerful pastors who were blatant hypocrites, televangelists who lived lavishly off their followers' donations. But the more exposés he reported, the more discouraged he got. He found that most believers didn't want to hear bad news; their usual reaction was to cling even more tightly to whoever was scamming them. The preachers he exposed, meanwhile, denounced him and used his name in fundraising appeals. And it wasn't just him: in one story he tells, a young evangelical named Jen Hubbard tried to blow the whistle on fishy expenditures by the apologist Hank Hanegraaff, who used followers' donations on sports cars and country club dues, only to end up fired from her job and shunned by the Christian community [p.72].

Under the pressure of these contradictions, the proof that Christians lived no more morally than everyone else, and growing fissures of doubt about the irreconcilable contradictions of faith, Lobdell's religious beliefs finally collapsed. "[A]s deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut... I just didn't believe in God anymore" [p.244]. In a moving epilogue, he writes of the profound relief he's experienced, the liberating feeling of freedom and the "tremendous sense of gratitude" [p.278] he now feels at being alive. (He's since written to tell Christians to stop trying to reconvert him.)

That's the summary, and I hope it shows what I liked best about the book: a painfully honest deconversion story, interwoven with devastating first-hand reporting about the Catholic child molestation scandal, as well as some hard-hitting takedowns of other Christian preachers. Lobdell chronicles both how he came to faith and how he ultimately left it in detail, with a reporter's practiced eye and an undeniable, disarming sincerity.

That said, there were a few passages in the book that irked me. One was his treatment of Rick Warren, whom he's met in person and whom he describes as a warm, friendly and genuinely sincere person who remains "grounded" [p.71] "different from most" Christian leaders and "careful to keep clear of controversy" [p.70]. This is the same Rick Warren who's rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay and doesn't think an atheist is qualified to be president. He even refused to denounce a Ugandan law, sponsored by one of his proteges, that would put gay people to death, relenting and offering a grudging condemnation only after an onslaught of bad press.

Second: I'm not sure Lobdell fully realizes the extent to which his former religious beliefs affected his coverage. He says that "My only agenda was to make religion as fascinating to others as it was to me... I didn't think my role was to promote the faith" [p.46]. But some of his old stories which he quotes with pride - including one in particular about an investment manager who says he uses the Bible as his financial guide - sound like they could have come from a Christian apologetics pamphlet. He writes that he still believes there's a "liberal slant" in the media, a long-debunked trope, but doesn't seem to notice how his own beliefs shaped the tone of his writing.

Third, and the one that piqued me the most: Lobdell has scornful words for the New Atheists, saying things like, "I am not as confident in my disbelief as [Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens] are. Their disbelief has a religious quality to it that I'm not ready to take on" [p.271].

This tiresome, patronizing rhetoric is especially strange because, from reading the book, it's clear that he agrees with every argument they make: the moral culpability of an all-powerful god who permits evil, the way believers rationalize the failure of prayer as God's ineffable will, the abundant harm caused by religious beliefs which Lobdell himself has exhaustively chronicled. But even though there's nothing he disagrees with the New Atheists about, he still doesn't feel as comfortable as they do saying so in public. I think this is a remnant of his past theism: the idea that religious beliefs deserve "respect" even when they're patently false and harmful. But despite this lingering blind spot, Losing My Religion was a hard-hitting and emotionally moving story, and well worth my recommendation and endorsement.

June 27, 2011, 6:32 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink13 comments

The Value of Autonomy

I've been following this debate between Ross Douthat and Kevin Drum about the morality of assisted suicide. In his latest post, Douthat made a telling, though apparently unintentional, statement:

The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn't amount to much if you don't disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives. Absent that disapproval (and an accompanying, even-stronger disapproval of the people who assist them), you won't be bothered by... people taking lethal prescriptions in Oregon because they're worried about "losing autonomy" or "being a burden" (both of which are more frequently cited reasons for choosing assisted suicide under Oregon's law than are concerns about physical pain)...

Douthat takes it entirely for granted that the fear of losing autonomy is an insufficient justification for desiring to commit suicide. But why should we believe this?

Not all suffering is purely physical. For a person who's severely disabled, such as with a disease like ALS, to the point of requiring 24-hour nursing care - the point of being unable to speak, to get dressed, to eat, to use the bathroom, even to sit up or roll over in bed without assistance - I would fully understand if that person decided their life had become intolerable and requested help to end it. In fact, it doesn't surprise me at all that people who commit assisted suicide cite loss of autonomy more than pain. Pain can be controlled with drugs, but loss of independence and dignity can't be controlled; and for many people, those things might well be worse than pain.

It's also true that some people who seek assisted suicide aren't "terminally" ill, in the sense that they can be kept alive indefinitely with life-support technology. But there's no reason why the only allowable justification for suicide should be a disease that's inevitably lethal. If the disease itself doesn't kill, but so alters the sufferer's life as to completely preclude future happiness, why shouldn't people be permitted to decide for themselves that they no longer wish to endure it?

Take the case of Edward and Joan Downes, which I wrote about in 2009. Joan Downes had terminal pancreatic cancer; her husband Edward was going blind and deaf, but unlike her, wasn't at imminent risk of death. Nevertheless, he decided that he didn't want to go on living without the woman who had been his love, his caretaker and his constant companion of over fifty years, and the two of them elected to commit suicide together so that they could die in each other's arms. (My eyes still sting a bit when I type that.) That was a poignantly beautiful, even heroic, death, and I hope, when my time comes, that I have one anywhere near as good. If this is the kind of conclusion that Douthat would prefer to see outlawed - if he would take away people's right to write an end to their own stories like the one Edward and Joan Downes did - then his view is cruel and senseless sadism.

Or take Terry Pratchett, who's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's itself doesn't kill, but the end stages aren't pretty: mood swings, delusions, incontinence and paranoia, ultimately progressing to the complete loss of memory and even the capability for speech. Pratchett has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, if necessary, when the time is right rather than suffer all this. But in Douthat's criteria, this would be outlawed, and people with Alzheimer's would be required to live as long as possible, regardless of the emotional pain and humiliation caused by loss of identity, regardless of the suffering inflicted on their family by watching a loved one's mind slowly disintegrate. (This, I presume, falls under the heading of "not wanting to be a burden" which, again, Douthat scoffingly dismisses as an illegitimate reason to commit suicide.)

To decide these cases and others, the only real question that needs to be asked is this: Who owns our lives? The humanist view is that we are the owners of our own lives, and we are entitled to end them when we choose. If a person is suffering from mental illness that deranges their reason and gives them an irrational desire to die, we should prevent that, just as we'd (hopefully) prevent a person in the throes of mental illness from taking any other rash and irreversible action. But if a person of sound mind genuinely desires to exit life, we have no moral grounds to stop them, nor to criminalize the actions of those who compassionately help them on the way.

For Douthat and those like him, however, their moral system is built on the basis that a being called God exists, that they know what this being wants, and that they're authorized to act on his behalf. In the name of these beliefs, they would force people to remain alive, force them to endure all the agonies of incurable illness, force them to endure all the humiliations of a disintegrating self, for no gain and no purpose. You couldn't ask for a better proof that religious morality is fundamentally anti-human in its outlook and its spirit.

June 9, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Justice for the Victims of Faith Healing

I'm still working through a backlog of interesting stories that accumulated during my vacation, so here's the first of them.

As freethinkers know too well, claiming that your religion requires you to do or not do something is an almost all-purpose excuse for immoral behavior. It's frustratingly rare for believers to be punished for wrongdoing when they invoke their faith as a shield. That's why I'm so unexpectedly pleased to see that rationality is getting a foothold in Oregon, where more and more parents are being prosecuted for withholding medical treatment from their children in preference to faith healing.

Most of the attention is on the Followers of Christ, a small sect that, like the larger Christian Scientists, completely rejects modern medicine and "treats" disease only with prayer. Unsurprisingly, members of this church have a tendency to die of curable illnesses - but if they really want to throw their lives away, that's their choice, as stupid and senseless as it is. Far more troubling is that their minor children, who can't give rational assent to these beliefs, are also being allowed to suffer and die for the same reason.

The Followers of Christ first came to light in 1998 when local media reported that the church had a graveyard full of dead children, many of which could easily have been saved if they'd gotten medical attention. Prosecutors wanted to intervene, but their hands were tied by an Oregon law which protected parents who relied exclusively on faith healing. Showing some commendable good sense, the legislature repealed this exemption soon after, but it's taken years for the police and prosecutors to begin moving cases through the pipeline. The first one was in 2008, and more are coming, like this appalling example:

At birth, the girl, Alayna, was a pink-cheeked bundle, but by 6 months, a growth the size of a baseball had consumed the left side of her face, pushing her eyeball out of its socket. The Wylands, members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect whose members shun medicine, would not take her to a doctor.

These parents are rightly standing trial for this horrific neglect, and their daughter was taken away from them to get the care she needed so badly. In another case, a couple was prosecuted and convicted for allowing their teenage son to die - of a blocked urinary tract, for truth's sake, something I'm guessing any doctor could have cleared up in five minutes.

But Dr. Douglas S. Diekema, a medical ethicist at Children's Hospital in Seattle, says that more harm than good may have been done to Alayna Wyland... "For me, the real question is, could you not have done that without taking the child from the parents?" he said. "I think you could accomplish getting some of these kids treated by getting a home health nurse -- and if you need a police officer there, that's fine. But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don't understand that."

This is a truly absurd suggestion - that sick children of faith-healing cults should be kept at home, while the police show up every time a treatment is needed to restrain their parents. This is a ridiculous waste of scarce police resources, and shows how some people will bend over backwards to protect the unearned and undeserved privilege accorded to religion.

Under most circumstances, I'd agree that it's better for children to be left with their parents, but these aren't most circumstances. These couples are a clear and present danger to the lives and health of their children; they've proven themselves unfit to be parents, just as we consider drug addicts or violent abusers unfit parents. The motivation may be different, but the end result, unless the state intervenes, is the same: children dead, for no good reason or purpose.

Nor would sending parents to jail change their preference for faith healing, Dr. Diekema said.

That may well be true, as it's well-known that religious fanatics consider their beliefs to trump the laws of democratic society. But so what? You might as well say that it's pointless to jail al-Qaeda leaders because it won't persuade them to renounce terrorist violence. Justice demands that people who've done wrong be punished accordingly, whether or not they admit the wrongfulness of their conduct.

I was happy to see that this article quotes Rita Swan, who's made it her life's work to protect children from being harmed or killed by faith-healing delusions, and equally happy that her campaign is bearing fruit. It takes time and persistence, but people's opinions can be changed. For the children who badly need society's protection from the dangerous delusions of their parents, that change can't come quickly enough.

June 2, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments

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